The Cushing Lee Factor Part 1: Together but still apart
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Two actors whose names have become synonymous both with each other and with the horror genre – which they seemed to sustain almost by themselves from the late 1950’s to the mid 1970’s. But, as Christopher Lee was all too keen to emphasise, their actual film choices and the many different characters they played throughout their careers show there was something much more to them than monsters and mad scientists. And I thought a broader reassessment of their contribution to film and wider appreciation of their talents both within and without the horror genre would be as good a way to start blog as any.
Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, fascinated by horror films, I became aware of Cushing and Lee as a horror double-act through the late night horror double-bills that were a regular part of BBC2’s output, and also through a couple of ‘history of horror’ books that were hanging around my friend’s house. I also knew Cushing from his role in Star Wars, and the seismic impact of that film on my life guaranteed my interest in anything even remotely connected to it.
I find now that I love to look back and see Cushing and Lee at work in (almost) anything and where their participation in a film (together or apart) coincides with a work of quality, then it is all the more richly satisfying. Having favourite actors is a pastime for many, and I could ramble on about the true acting greats who have sustained film obsessives like me over the years, but many of those greats are more than adequately lauded for their output and sometimes it feels important to root for the lesser known or lesser appreciated actor.
I also think Cushing and Lee were gentleman. Two men who conducted themselves with dignity, professionalism, without scandal, and who followed through with a great devotion to their families, to their craft and to each other. This too is a crucial part of the Cushing Lee Factor and for me is no small treasure.
Of course as actors keen to work, who were typecast if not in their roles at least within a genre whose output generally emphasised thrills and gore over quality, it’s not surprising that some of the films they made were frankly, terrible and many more were decidedly average. But more than a few were fine films and as a suitable starting point, their first joint credit was something of a cinematic landmark.
Laurence Olivier was an acting god and his first film as director, Henry V, was a magnificently successful adaptation of the Shakespeare play – innovative, witty, bold and thoroughly accessible. Hamlet, his second film as director came four years later and was an equally ambitious piece. Medieval family drama as film noir, part ghost story, part revenge tale – the great play speaks for itself and Olivier’s version is another triumph, winning Oscars for best picture (the first non-American film to do so) and best actor (amazingly Olivier’s only win for acting).
From the offset, while this is technically Cushing and Lee’s first film together, it only just counts, as Lee is in a ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ bit part as a spear carrier. I think he’s on for a few seconds here and there from about 10 minutes in. But as the first of three accidental and incidental collaborations they had, the film is still worth mentioning not least for the more significant role Cushing has as Osric. He shares a lively scene with Olivier’s Hamlet and Wooland’s Horatio as the preening, foppish fool sent to bring Hamlet the fencing challenge. Cushing is almost unrecognisable by his accent and mannerisms complete with a comedy pratfall. What I like best is that during the duel itself, Osric’s complicity with Laertes plot is revealed through a heartfelt, steely but defeated stare from Osric when they realise that Hamlet has bested them.
Incidentally, Olivier would cast another pair of future horror regulars in the next film he would direct, 1955's Richard III. Michael Gough and (Hammer’s most used actor) Michael Ripper would play the murderers of Gielgud’s Duke of Clarence.
Moulin Rouge: 1952
John Huston’s film adaptation of the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec has Jose Ferrer on impressive form as the troubled genius painter who lives amongst the bohemian sub-culture of Paris despite his aristocratic pedigree. The film was a critical and commercial success and like Hamlet was Oscar nominated for best picture, best director and best leading actor. Watching it now, the film is nicely put together with strong performances all round, some memorable lines and impressive production values. Most striking of all is the cinematography and the choreography. But as is so often true with biopics, the story holds a steady line from A to B and the overriding despondency of Lautrec prevents the film from truly coming alive.
For the first time, both Cushing and Lee have lines in the same film albeit as single-scene characters (they do not share screen time). Lee is on first as the artist Georges Seurat who, with a group of others tries to penetrate Lautrec’s gloom. Lee has a few lines that are nicely delivered. Cushing comes in later as Marcel de la Voisier, the ex-lover of Lautrec’s girlfriend Myriamme Hyam. There is a nice awkwardness conveyed between Voisier, Lautrec and Hyam.
Alexander the Great: 1956
The third of Cushing and Lee’s incidental collaborations was Robert Rossen’s Alexander. This story of the great historical leader is considered something of a failure. Burton looked too old to convince as the teenage Alexander – even though Burton’s charisma is fairly unstoppable – and watching it now it is largely a dull experience. Like Hamlet, this is something of a technical inclusion, as Lee does not appear on screen and is only present as a voice, dubbing the part of Helmut Dantine’s Nectanabus. Cushing plays Memmon nicely, with a broiling earnestness, further establishing his great range.
The seed of Cushing and Lee's connection was sown in these three 'big' films of varying quality, each interesting in their own way, each part of the wider tapestry that was introducing these two men to cinema. Between 1948 and 1956 both Cushing and Lee were making their way, appearing in roles in many different films. Lee mostly in very small supporting roles, Cushing in parts of substance that were helping him build a real reputation as a fine character actor. His work in The End of the Affair and TV films of The Browning Version and 1984 (for which he won the BAFTA TV award for best actor in 1956) would ensure that the tractor beam of Hammer Films would soon draw him into their world, for the lead role in what would be the two actors first true collaboration, 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein.